You can’t talk about health and not talk to people about alcohol consumption. Alcohol is as prevalent in our society as stress, hamburgers and weird looking dogs. There is a lot of controversy around drinking alcohol and whether it benefits or hinders a person’s health. And when people talk to me about their diet, one of the main questions I get is “can I drink alcohol?” I think that most people are willing to give up dairy before they give up their daily glass of wine. And rightfully so! Alcohol is associated with relaxation, unwinding and social engagement.
So should people with autoimmune diseases kick their alcohol habits? Well the answer, like all answers, is it depends. Alcohol in moderation may provide some small anti-inflammatory effects in those with autoimmune diseases. But there are many other factors besides the main ingredient, ethanol, that can contribute to a person’s health. Let’s take a look at those specifics.
Alcohol as a food allergy
Despite it’s intoxicating effects, alcohol is often made from ingredients that people can have inflammatory responses to. Many beers are made from gluten, which a very common allergy for those with autoimmune diseases. Hard liquors can be made from gluten, potatoes, and certain herbs and spices. These are common allergies for people and can cause immune system reactions, especially when consumed on a regular basis.
Most alcohols are also made with brewer’s yeast – wine and beer specifically. The yeast is what provides the fermentation that converts sugars into ethanol. People can have allergy or immune system reactions to certain yeasts, including brewer’s yeast. Distilled liquors will often remove yeast products, but beverages like beer and wine often have yeast particles present.
Alcohol as a sugar
Most alcohol is VERY high in sugar. Sugar is needed for the fermentation process to produce ethanol. Sugars can be triggering to autoimmune diseases for a number of reasons. First, an overall increase in blood sugar over time can cause unwanted metabolic changes. These changes can lead to changes in cortisol or other hormones that influence the immune system. If hormone changes occur over time, the body may not be able to regulate inflammation as well.
Sugar also feeds the bacteria and yeast in the GI tract. If there is an imbalance in those GI microbes (GI dysbiosis), it can cause bad yeast or bacteria to grow in the gut. This can lead to things like candidiasis, SIBO, leaky gut or other inflammatory GI conditions. These are well known triggers of autoimmune diseases and may cause flares in some people.
Alcohol as a liver suppressor
The most common effect of alcohol is it’s effect on the liver. The liver is a very important organ in our body that is responsible for all things related to our metabolism. It helps break things down in our body including hormones and things we eat and drink daily. If these processes are impaired, it will affect the way the immune system responds on a daily basis. Parts of the immune system may not be broken down as well, or may be over reactive to particles that were not broken down properly.
Overall, there are many ways that alcohol can influence autoimmune diseases. Alcohol in moderation (1-2 drinks a week) is generally fine for most people that don’t have the above reactions. But if you are concerned about how alcohol might be affecting your immune system, you should talk with your doctor.